Can Every Conflict Be Resolved?

I often get asked if every conflict can be resolved. Since I work with leaders and teams to resolve workplace conflicts and to build the confidence people have to address conflicts, I think it’s a really good question.

The short answer is: yes, every conflict can be resolved.

The question does have one problem though — it is incomplete.

It is incomplete in that people often ask the question with an unspoken assumption about the outcome of the resolution process. When I add the assumption to the question, it becomes…

Can every conflict be resolved and also preserve the relationship?

By adding the criteria that the relationship is preserved, the answer changes from yes to no.

Sad, possibly a bit harsh, and still true.

The operating definition that I work from for a successful conflict resolution is that the involved parties have come to an agreement about their future behaviors and interactions with regard to each other that ends, or resolves, the conflict.

In most situations, reasonable people can reach agreement on how they will interact with each other that both preserves the relationship and resolves the conflict.

Sadly, there are situations where the cost of the agreement exceeds the value that one or the other party (possibly both parties) assign to the relationship. The cost of the agreement can be measured in terms of the  financial, emotional, or physical effort implications of accepting the changed behavior. When the cost of the changed behavior exceeds the value of the relationship, the relationship will usually end — eventually if not immediately.

Ending the relationship is agreeing to end routine interactions so it qualifies as an agreement about future behaviors and interactions. Therefore, it would qualify as a conflict resolution.

It is not necessarily a happy resolution. It is a resolution.

Can every conflict be resolved?

Yes.

Can every conflict be resolved and also preserve the relationship?

No.

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